Getting Lost in the Form: On VERTIGO and Dissolution

Gordon Hon

The Cine-Files, issue 7 (fall 2014)

Amongst the many crackpot theories of The Shining put forward in Rodney Ascher‘s Room 237 (2012) is the observation that a lap dissolve, which briefly merges a pile of luggage with a group of tourists, is not just a formal, compositional choice, but a substantive reference to the Holocaust. Elsewhere, Room 237 cites one of Kubrick’s long dissolves in which a janitor in an interior shot briefly appears to be sweeping the forest in an exterior shot instead of the hotel floor. That dissolve also includes a pan in which the triangular form of a stepladder appears to position itself over a matching architectural feature of the hotel, itself one of the many continuity anomalies of the film. What makes Room 237 so entertaining is the sheer proliferation of theories, analyses and associations produced by the viewers of The Shining. At the same time, it offers a case study on cinephilia and the limits of interpretation. The outlandishness of some of the interpretations suggests an obsessive hyper-reading, as though the film is a puzzle in which cunningly concealed messages can be discovered if one only reads the clues correctly. As John Fell Ryan, one of the film’s obsessed commentators puts it “[The Shining] is a way of trapping someone like me, who goes looking for clues and keeps finding them and the next thing I’m like, man, you know, I’ve been trapped in this hotel for ever […] but he [Kubrick] puts escape routes into this maze, this trap.” Clue is the operative word here, given its origin in the thread (or clew) Ariadne gave to Theseus to help him out of the Minoan labyrinth. One of the most interesting ideas put forward in Room 237 is Juli Kearns’ description of the Overlook Hotel set as a version of the mythical labyrinth in which Jack is the minotaur. Kearns even went so far as to draw maps of the set to show the extent to which it was designed to deliberately confound the viewer. She finds references to the minotaur scattered throughout the film which strike me as rather superfluous given Kubrick’s explicit use of the hedge maze, in which Jack eventually becomes a bellowing monster. Towards the end of Room 237, Kearns says that “with The Shining, the more you magnify things the more you look at them, the less purpose it serves because […] none of it makes sense from the beginning,” which suggests that the film itself is a kind of mythical labyrinth constructed to disorientate the viewer. In this sense, Ryan’s use of the word maze is particularly apt, in that it means both a confused state of mind and a structure that produces confusion.

The continuity anomalies of The Shining do not need to mean anything beyond their cumulative disorientating effect. A similar thing can be said for the long lap dissolves; yes they include deliberate formal coincidences, but not necessarily with any substantive intent. The rather mannered ways in which the dissolving scenes interact make us aware of the architecture of the film, different from, but inextricably linked to the architecture of the set, and carry us from one scene to another a little too smoothly, luring us deeper into the labyrinth. A labyrinthine structure can also be found in Vertigo in which we follow Scotty through the streets and alleys of San Francisco, through back doors, cemeteries and museums. Our journey into this maze is also smoothly assisted by long dissolves. They are not quite as conspicuous as in The Shining, which was made at a time when this kind of transition had become very unfashionable[1], but Hitchcock similarly uses them to ease us into a disorientating structure, inducing a kind of horizontal vertigo, as cars disappear into faces and faces into facades.

My interest in the dissolves in Vertigo came out of a reference made by Victor Burgin[2] to an article by Reda Bensmaia.[3] Bensmaia claimed that in some of the long dissolves in La Jetée, we can see the victims of the nuclear holocaust that has destroyed Paris and who are otherwise absent from the imagery of the film. Instead they appear briefly like apparitions, as one image mutates into another, in which, for example, a blindfolded face dissolves into a faceless statue. This reminds me a little too much of the insistence on substantive content in formal techniques in the interpretations of The Shining. I was less interested in interpreting the dissolves. Rather, what drew me was their formal function in the construction of the space of the film, in other words, as a technique of the film-maker-as-Daedalus in the construction of the labyrinth.

There is an obvious answer to the question asked of La Jetée by Bensmaia, “What is to be done with the dissolves, what status are they to be given? How can we account for their ‘exceptional’ length?”[4] Marker is harking back to the pre-cinema days of the magic lantern shows in which cross dissolves were used to create an illusion of movement from one still slide to the next.[5] The technique preceded cinema as a way of perceptually luring the audience into a new pictorial narrative space characterized by what Roger Odin, referring to the dissolves in La Jetée and cited by Bensmaia, described as “an indeterminate continuum.”[6] Odin describes them as holes in perception, holes that for Bensmaia can let something in that is not allowed elsewhere in the film. But these holes also hold the film together. They are, after all, edits. This structure held together by holes is a kind of ruin and Marker is perhaps explicitly referring to the ruinous structure of La Jetée in the extended montage of the ruins of Paris dissolving into one another.

The possible relationship between the lap dissolve and the structural models of the ruin and the labyrinth seemed a good enough reason to take a closer look at Vertigo’s dissolves. What would happen if I kept these “holes in perception” and discarded the rest of the film? What would I be left with? The first problem was how, or rather where, to edit a dissolve. The most obvious method would be to take the edit from the last intact image before the dissolve, up until the first intact image after the dissolve. However I wanted just the “indeterminate continuum” without a departure point or destination and for the transitions to have already begun and to remain unresolved. They also had to be slowed down to make them properly visible. Without their function as transitions, they were no longer, properly speaking, dissolves but super-impositions of adjacent scenes. However the point was that these complex images were part of the visual structure of the film, seen in passing, as it were, like the back projected scenery through the car windows as we wind our way through the labyrinthine plot.

My method was simple: to keep all but the shortest lap dissolves and put them in a continuous sequence in chronological order. What became immediately apparent was their quantity and importance in the psychic fabric of the film. As is often the case, once an editorial criteria is established, it has to be transgressed. I discovered that the most significant example isn’t actually a lap dissolve or a transition but a superimposition dissolving in and out of the same scene. After a visit to the museum, Scotty looks at a reproduction of Carlotta’s portrait in a catalogue. His gaze, saturated in morbid desire, produces an apparition of Madeleine’s profile. In that brief moment, we have Kim Novak as Judy pretending to be Madeleine, superimposed over footage of a photograph of a painting produced for the film depicting Novak as the dead Carlotta. A truly vertiginous mise en abyme through which Novak’s face falls through the layers of representation, lost in the proliferation of forms.

This superimposition draws attention to the formal importance of the lap dissolves and the extent to which Scotty’s hallucinatory gaze is incorporated into the form of the film. This effect becomes most explicit in the famous hotel scene, in which Judy finally presents herself as the reconstructed Madeleine under Scotty’s fevered and meticulous direction. Rather than simply walking out of the bathroom, she materialises in front of it, part ghost, part hallucination. This is followed by the transformation of the hotel room into the stable, in which one scene dissolves into another, not as a dissolve or a transition but as a hallucination. Scotty’s gaze is given the power not only to dissolve or materialise women, but to transform the entire mise en scène. On the other hand, when we are given Judy’s guilty flashback via a dissolve, we do not see it from her point of view. We, like Scotty, are given the power, via the magic of cinema, to dissolve her face and see her inner thoughts as scenes in the film. Of course there are lots of lap dissolves of Scotty’s face, but these tend to be used as he moves from scene to scene, making his way through the labyrinth, reinforcing the sense in which the boundary between his state of mind and the formal properties of the film dissolve into one another. However, Scotty ultimately sees through her not via a dissolve but by the clue of the necklace that she helpfully provides. She plays her part as Ariadne and is dispensed with.

While making this video essay, I, too, found myself lost in the form. But by limiting myself to a strict criteria of looking only at the dissolves, I made my way through the labyrinth. The route was determined by the process, which in turn was determined by a formal property of the film. To some extent, it is a technique of avoiding interpretation and paying attention to the architecture of the film. The model I partly had in mind doesn’t come from filmmaking or film theory but from Mieke Bal’s study of the American Museum of Natural History[7] in which she regards the body of the museum visitor, in narratological terms, as the focalizer of the narrative. The story unfolds as the visitor moves through the rooms. However, rather than simply perform this role, Bal pays attention to the form and structure of the museum display, in particular the transitions between the rooms. My evocation of Bal’s study may have been triggered by the important parts played by museums in Vertigo and La Jetée— in both films, the museum architecture and static displays of paintings and stuffed animals dissolve into the faces and bodies of the visitors. In both films the narrative structure and the architectural settings are inextricably bound together and the progress through the spaces of the films is merged with the states of mind of their protagonists.

However, something else is going on here, something produced by the process of making this video essay, which did feel rather like a walk through a museum. This takes me back to the labyrinth of The Shining as experienced by Juli Kearns in Room 237; she describes how she began to lose herself in the film when it became available on VHS and later on DVD and she was able to stop the action and to look closer. She is an exemplary model of Mulvey’s pensive spectator, but I think it is particularly significant that what Kearns began to pay attention to was the static elements of the film— the architecture of the set and the posters and photographs on the walls. Perhaps it is this relatively new way of viewing that turns the film into a kind of museum in which we can wander around almost at will, stop to look closer or retrace our steps. Like Bal in the Museum of Natural History, we are no longer at the mercy of the official guide and can look closer at what the architecture and modes of display are doing. On my walk through the museum of Vertigo, I chose to look at the dissolve transitions, not in order to find hidden or repressed content to interpret but as devices of conveyance through the spaces of the film and the extent to which they fuse the narrative to this movement. In terms of the images, there are a lot of long close up dissolves of Stewart and Novak’s faces in various states of confusion or simply lost in thought, combined with movements through the buildings, streets and landscapes. They too are in a “maze” in both senses of the word.

As for the question that began the process– what would I be left with if I discarded everything except the dissolves? I think the answer is, a picturesque ruin suspended in an “indeterminate continuum” of perpetual, simultaneous materialisation and disintegration. It is a sequence of coinciding exits and entrance, thresholds at which spectral figures merge with precarious grounds. It also looks more like a magic lantern show than a film and in this way has been clearly informed by Marker’s “remake.” What has always struck me about La Jetée is the extent to which the time-travelling protagonist is also travelling through space— not the space of science fiction but pictorial space, as though he is strolling through the pictures of a photograph album, as a viewer and participant. A form of immersion in the image that recalls a viewer of 18th century paintings: a pensive, promenading, spectator. In Diderot’s accounts of the Salons of 1767, written for aristocrats who were unable to attend, he sometimes describes the scenes and places in the paintings as though he were walking through them in a reverie. On a small painting by Hubert Robert, The Italian Kitchen, Diderot urges the reader/viewer to enter the kitchen, “but first let’s allow the servant turning her back to us to proceed up or down, and let’s make room for the little brat following her with such difficulty: for the stone steps are very high for him […] From the foot of this door I see that the space is square, and that its left wall has been demolished to reveal the interior. I step over the debris of this wall and move forward.”[8] He continues his “walk” through this painting, giving almost hallucinatory details of the ruined architecture. Robert was to go on to become a highly successful genre painter of ruins and oversaw the conversion of the Louvre into a national Museum. It seems apt that one of Robert’s most well known paintings is an Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins (1796) painted before the gallery was complete. Depicting it as a ruin was not a destructive fantasy, but a way of presenting the museum and painting as spaces of reverie. In his Salons of 1676, Diderot directly addressed the young Robert and urged him to paint ruins that the viewer could walk among. In the envisaging of the new museum in views of its ideal proposed form, as an imagined ruin and as a real architectural project, Robert happily conflates the space of the museum with the fictional pictorial spaces. The visitors are invited to enter the museum and the paintings.

The slowed down, sped up, interrupted, paused and replayed film is not merely a ruined form, it is also a form of ruin. It is a ruin produced by the way it is looked at, and in turn produces new forms of looking. Our relationship to film is not just being altered temporally, but spatially. Films such as Vertigo become available to us as a new form of virtual space in which it is possible to lose ourselves.

Gordon Hon teaches Fine Art and Visual Culture at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. His most recent publication is The Origins of Palestinian Art, Liverpool University Press 2013 (co-authored with Bashir Makhoul). He has recently co-founded a film collective with Amber Jacobs, making a series of short films.


[1] James E. Cutting, Kaitlin L. Brunick and Jordan E. Delong, “The Changing Poetics of The Dissolve In Hollywood Film,” Empirical Studies Of The Arts 29 (2011): 149-169.

[2] Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film (London: Reaktion Books 2004), 104.

[3] Reda Bensmaïa, “From the Photogram to the Pictogram: On Chris Marker’s La Jetée,camera obscura 24 (Sept. 1990): 138-161.

[4] Ibid., 142-143.

[5] Burgin points out a striking example of this in which the sleeping woman’s mouth appears to open slightly through the use of a slow dissolve. The Remembered Film, 105.

[6] Roger Odin, (1981) Le film de fiction menace par la photographie et sauve par la bande-son (a propos de La Jetee de Chris Marker), Cinemas de la modernite, Films, Theories, Cerisy Colloquium, Editions Klincksieck, Paris. Cited by Bensmaia From the Photogram to the Pictogram, 140.

[7] Mieke Bal, “Telling, Showing, Showing Off,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 3 (University of Chicago Press, Spring, 1992): 556-594.

[8] Denis Diderot, “Salon of 1767,” in Diderot on Art, vol. II, ed. and trans. by John Goodman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 209.